Al-Tayebat Middle Eastern Grocery, 1217 S. Brookhurst St . , Anaheim, (714) 520-4723. Open Monday - Saturday 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.
In Arabic, Al-Tayebat means wonderful things. It's a fitting name for a market with butchers who make lamb sausages studded with pine nuts and hand-cut shish kebabs to order from fresh sides of halal lamb.
"We don't buy precut meat," says Al-Tayebat's owner, Sami Khouraki, who comes from a family of Syrian merchants.
Al-Tayebat carries the fresh seasonal herbs, fruits and vegetables used in Middle Eastern cooking: eggplants the size of your thumb, 2-foot-long pale-green English butter gourd and the tart, unripe grapes and sour red cherries used for flavoring Iranian meat dishes.
But you don't have to cook Syrian, Lebanese or Iranian food to appreciate the store's conventional produce. I found Spanish saffron, shimmering green Lebanese extra-virgin olive oil and sour cherry preserves from a Belgian company, thick with whole fruit. And on the day I was there, five kinds of pears were displayed. One flaming scarlet variety was fully ripe and juicy--a rare occurrence these days. There were also huge red grapes the size of walnuts and pencil-thin yellow wax beans.
Each morning at 3:30, Khouraki, a former manager for the K mart Corp., drives downtown to the Los Angeles Central Produce Market, although his store is located in Anaheim. He prefers to select the produce himself rather than having it delivered sight unseen.
And he has the butchers in Al-Tayebat's modest meat department prepare kufta to each customer's specifications.
"Some people like their kufta seasoned with hot pepper, others prefer sweet pepper or cinnamon," Khouraki says. "And though lamb is traditional, we also get calls to make it with beef."
Culinarily speaking, the Middle East begins in the Balkans and extends right up to the edge of India, dipping down to Northern Africa. And though each country has its distinct cuisine, Al-Tayebat caters to them all. These countries use similar ingredients, and their tables have long been a product of cultural exchange prompted by the comings and goings of pilgrims, trade caravans and invaders. Certain staples are widespread, such as lamb, wheat, rice, eggplant and olives.
So the plump, fresh walnut halves behind Al-Tayebat's counter might end up in Lebanese baklava or a Georgian satsivi (cold chicken with a spicy walnut sauce); the filo dough may wrap Greek tiropita or Yugoslavia's meat borek , and the small eggplants could be stuffed with walnuts and then pickled to make Syrian beitinjan makbus or sauteed for a Turkish rice pilaf.
When you shop at Al-Tayebat, take a shopping basket rather than try to manipulate a cart through the store's narrow aisles--although carts won't be a problem much longer. Khouraki has acquired the adjoining property, and the remodeled store will nearly double the space for Al-Tayebat's wonderful things.
Halal lamb: The fine-quality lamb carried at Al-Tayebat is halal-- which means it has been butchered according to Islamic religious prescriptions. You can purchase whole or half lambs for roasting and perhaps to stuff in the traditional Greek or Armenian way.
If you need less meat, the butcher will bone a leg of lamb with a pocket to hold stuffing. Each country has its own stuffing recipes. In Syria and Lebanon it's likely to be a simple combination of garlic and herbs or a more elaborate one of chopped figs, raisins and prunes (about 2 ounces each) with 1/2 teaspoon each of dried thyme and sage and sprinkled with a little melted butter. The stuffed pocket must be tied shut before the meat is roasted.
Another specialty Al-Tayebat's customers might have the butchers prepare is meat for Chelo Kebab : lamb cut into wide strips, to be marinated in yogurt or lemon juice and olive oil. After a charcoal grilling, the meat may be served with rice that has been cooked so that it has a crisp crust at the bottom.
Lamb is also the main ingredient in many of the famous Iranian stews known as khoresh. The ingredients in a khoresh, which can include fruit and nuts or pomegranate juice, make a lush sauce. And the khoresh is always served over a huge mound of fragrant basmati-style rice to absorb it.
Ma'ani: These lamb sausages are made in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent (the pronunciation of the name varies from region to region--in written Arabic it's naqaniq ). Khouraki is justifiably proud of the shop's small, finger-length ma'ani scented with a seasoning that includes allspice, cloves and pine nuts.